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How will Kim-Putin summit affect China?

China vows 'constructive role' amid concerns about Russia-NK military cooperation in Seoul-Beijing security talks

June 19, 2024 - 15:47 By Son Ji-hyoung
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare for a group photo with other leaders at the Third Belt and Road Forum on October 2023 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Pyongyang on Wednesday to hold talks with his counterpart, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, will likely pose hurdles on China's diplomatic front regardless of the outcome of the meeting, according to reports and observers closely watching the rare encounter between the leaders of the two isolated regimes.

Experts in Seoul, prior to the summit in North Korea, said that the talks between Putin and Kim would weaken China's influence on North Korea as its longtime ally and trade partner assisting Pyongyang.

Kang Jun-young, professor of China studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said stronger ties expected between Russia and North Korea through Putin's Pyongyang visit could eventually "weaken China's clout on North Korea."

Kang added that North Korea's Kim could "capitalize on the situation" where it can extract concessions from both China and Russia.

"From China's point of view, closer ties between Russia and North Korea will not make the most optimal setting for China's East Asia strategies," Kang said. "A new factor (impacting China-North Korea ties) will emerge if ties between Russia and North Korea become bolder."

Kang also said, for example, that Russia's potential technology transfer to North Korea could help the regime achieve technological independence from China, which would "irritate" the superpower.

"What if North Korea puts an operational spy satellite into orbit? It will revolve around the Earth and be capable of watching not only South Korea but also China," Kang said, "In the long run, there is a chance North Korea would not have to follow what China asks it to do."

The Kim-Putin meeting could also ramp up pressure on China, which has refrained from joining the bloc confrontation against the trilateral partnership of Seoul, Washington and Tokyo as enshrined in the Camp David declaration in the United States in August.

Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said that Beijing would continue to oppose a new Cold War-style bloc confrontation, and instead "focus on bilateral relationships" when dealing with Moscow and Pyongyang.

Park also noted that if China were to align with Russia and North Korea, it could face increased pressure against its efforts to penetrate the European market.

"From China's perspective, European countries are deemed more important partners than ever, as the strategic rivalry between the United States and China intensifies," Park said.

"Remember, Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a trip to France for a state visit (in May). China is trying to get closer to Europe by betting big on the region," he said. "However, given that (Russia's) war in Ukraine poses a real threat to Europe and (Russia) boasts ties with North Korea, China would feel highly irritated."

Meanwhile, South Korea has sought to pursue mutual diplomatic interests with China.

A day before the Kim-Putin summit, Seoul and Beijing held a vice-ministerial level foreign policy dialogue and a director-general-level security dialogue in South Korea's capital city.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the two "candidly communicated" with each other and agreed to hold the dialogue "regularly."

Also, according to the Foreign Ministry, Seoul expressed concerns about the North's series of provocations that undermine peace on the Korean Peninsula and about Putin's North Korea visit. It added that the potential development of Moscow-Pyongyang military ties is "against China's national interest."

Representatives of China were quoted as saying by Seoul's Foreign Ministry that China's policy toward the Korean Peninsula will remain unchanged and pledged to play a constructive role in resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula.

A source from the Foreign Ministry told reporters Wednesday that the two sides "decided not to reschedule the dialogue" even after both sides learned that Putin-Kim talks were to take place this week.